My father passed away when I was five, but I had a good mom and a good upbringing. I played every sport and was a pretty good athlete. I even earned a soccer scholarship for college. But I ended up not going to college after high school because I did drugs instead.
I started smoking pot and drinking when I was 11 or 12. I did things early because I was young for my grade and had mostly older friends. They gave me Xanax and Vicodin when I was a freshman, and it changed everything. I loved it. It was my favorite thing, and I began getting high every day. The drugs gave me a sense of ease and comfort I couldn’t get anywhere else, not even from sports. So I ran with that, every single day. That’s how I went through high school: addicted to pills, smoking, drinking, and, eventually, selling. That’s the way I liked it, and that’s the way I wanted it to stay.
But things changed when I was 17 and my supply was cut off. I had been taking 10 to 20 pills a day, and suddenly all I could get was one or two. That’s when I went through my first withdrawal—and then to my first rehab. But I was there for such a short time that it didn’t really change anything. That’s how the revolving door began, going in and out of psych wards and institutions and rehabs, I can’t tell you how many times. But I never spent much time at any of them—and eventually I couldn’t go home when I got out. I was shooting dope by then, so my mom kicked me out and I moved in with my aunt.
I had money that my dad had left me and from selling drugs, and I thought I could go on like that forever. But then my best buddy OD’d, and later, so did my girlfriend. When she passed away, I just stopped caring and hated the world. My aunt kicked me out, and I became homeless in New York City in the dead of winter. Then I was in and out of more psych wards, and even jail. But when I was released from the last psych ward on my girlfriend’s birthday, I took that as a sign from God and accepted help for the first time. Someone at the psych ward referred me to the Phoenix House Men’s Residential Program in Lake Ronkonkoma and I went.
It wasn’t my first rodeo, but I was gung ho for the first time—and I was able to stay for a long time, which I really needed. When I got there, I wasn’t even really a person yet. It took me four months to feel my feet on the ground. But I went through the motions and stayed with it even when I didn’t want to. I did the 12-step program and had a sponsor. That plus group therapy and the continuum of long-term treatment was what I needed to help me see what I needed to change—and that I could change. I had tried just doing the 12-step program in my community, but it wasn’t enough for me. Treatment at Phoenix House helped me start becoming the person I wanted to be.
Phoenix House gave me a platform to begin a life. I had never really started one—never followed through with school, never used that soccer scholarship. I really needed a year to get right with myself, and Phoenix House gave me that.
After five months at Ronkonkoma, I moved into the Phoenix House Community Residence in Brentwood and started school while I was there. I earned an associate’s degree in applied science and became a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC). I’ve been working as a counselor for about a year and a half, and I love it. I get fulfilled from my work, and from family. I have the greatest relationships with my mom and my sister now. When I was using, my sister acted like I was dead so that it wouldn’t hurt so much if I really did die. Now, she’s my biggest supporter. I’m the person she calls when she needs someone to take care of my nephew. My mom calls me if someone needs to be home to give $800 to the plumber. That never would have happened when I was using.
My aunt passed away five months ago, but before she passed we made amends. She loved me to death, and I’ll always be grateful to her for being there for me.
To anyone who’s struggling with addiction now, I’d tell them that there’s help if you’re ready. Don’t feel you’re alone or that no one can help you. I thought I was different, that I was beyond help and nothing could happen to change things. At Phoenix House, I had a counselor who had a phrase for that: “terminally unique.” Feeling that way nearly killed me. Today, I’m happy to be alive.